Imām Ghazālī’s Strategy in Kitāb al-Maḥabba

Over the coming months we will be attempting to provide a series of summaries on various discussions from the thirty sixth book of the Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, titled,  ‘love, longing intimacy and contentment’ (kitāb al-maḥabba wa’l-ṣhawq wa’al-uns wa’l-riḍā). This is the second part of the introduction (you can find the first part here: The Love of God as a Paradox)

It is worth exploring very briefly Imām Ghazālī’s strategy in the book. He begins with the Qur’an and Sunnah, then statements by Sufi masters; followed by “rational proof-texts” (ṣhawāhid ‘aqlīya) and highly structured argumentation. This is then followed by a methodical analysis of the nature and causes of love; the central theme being that God alone merits love. For him, the highest of all pleasures is in the knowledge of God, insofar as he is knowable to us. However, and fundamentally, God is unknowable to the human intellect. It is this unknowability that sustains the longing for God.

Ghazālī states that love as we know it begins by self-love; our love is always self-interested and combined with our greed to go on living. He then moves his argument forward by stating that we do not love other people or things for themselves. When we display love towards others it is not because we love them, rather it is for the kindness they bestow. This is still an illusion. The beggar who loves the one who gives him something, the benefactor, and the benefactor who takes pride in giving something to him are both deluded. This is because the benefactor is merely and instrument of benevolence since the promoting of benevolence has been willed by God himself. The beggar should thank God and the benefactor ought to realise that the beggar was an instrument by which God’s compassion is made manifest. Hence, we are shadows through whom the true actor plays out His part.

‘The Ghazālīan love of God is an eternal courtship in which the Beloved constantly responds to the lover’s suit with inexhaustible favours of insight’ (Eric Ormsby)


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